When Pat Colwell agreed in 2003 to follow her husband’s dream of owning a vineyard, she said she’d only do so if it was an organic farm. Thirteen years later, the Colwells have a thriving, successful home at Carolina Heritage Vineyard and Winery.
“We were living in Cary, and I was working for IBM and he was teaching. We were both eligible to retire,” Colwell said of she and her husband Clyde. But they didn’t want to just quit being active upon their retirement.
“We had one of those adult ‘what do you want to do when you grow up’ talks,” she said.
Clyde had grown up in Finger Lakes, New York, a wine region in the state, and said he’s always wanted a vineyard.
“I like wine, but I didn’t know anything about it. I said if we go organic, I’ll do it,” said Pat. “There were grapes here before the Europeans came. The opinion was you can’t grow grapes organically.”
As the couple started searching the state for a good spot to have an organic vineyard, they first looked at Chatham County, because of its population of organic farms. After doing more research, they learned that a vineyard at a higher elevation than Chatham’s 350 feet above sea level would produced better.
“We looked at farm property every weekend for a year,” Pat recalled.
But the property the couple eventually chose, she gives Clyde credit for finding. “It was 12 acres, totally overgrown with brambles that were five feet tall and an imploded pig barn. He came up during the week and looked at the property, and then on the weekend, I drove up the driveway and was unimpressed.”
But the home of Carolina Heritage is a knoll, on a hill, and grapes don’t do well in standing water, Pat said, so in September of 2004, the bought the property and a used tractor and bush-hog.
They would drive up on Fridays and go home on Sundays, spending all weekend clearing the land and preparing it for the vineyard.
“In February of 2005, we planted our first vines — muscadines,” said Pat. The couple drove to a nursery in Jacksonville, Florida, with a flatbed trailer in tow, and on return, the trailer was covered with muscadine vines.
By April, every single plant had leaves on it, she said. “I was so excited. I took pictures of every plant and there was no turning back for me.”
The following month, Pat retired, and Clyde followed suit just two weeks later. “We’ve never looked back,” she said.
The couple relocated to Elkin, moving into the old farmhouse on the Carolina Heritage property and started preparing more fields for vines. In 2006, they planted hybrids.
When they moved to Surry County in 2005, the couple also began taking classes at Surry Community College in its viticulture and enology program. “That was really where we learned everything about growing grapes and making wine,” Pat said, noting that both of them held bachelor’s and master’s degrees for their previous careers, with Clyde holding a doctorate. “It doesn’t matter how much education you have, if you try to start a new venture you have to think like a 19-year-old.”
They also learned about sustainable agriculture through the Carolina Farm Stewardship program, so Pat began digging a hole at the base of each vine and adding two cups of worm castings, because red worms attract earthworms from the woods. When they were adding the castings, they didn’t see one earthworm in the red clay, but later when they were digging up a vine to replace, the ground was full of earthworms.
Other organic resources used by Carolina Heritage includes the Organic Growers School at Blue Ridge Community College in Hendersonville and Seven Springs in Floyd, Virginia.
“We haven’t put pesticides or fungicides on the muscadines in seven years,” Pat said, explaining if a person grows what grows naturally in an area, it will take care of itself.
But then other challenges must be overcome as well, including the humidity. “We have tremendous moisture pressure,” she said. “The vinifera, or European vines, have never grown a defense against fungus, but the native vines have adapted.”
One of the hybrids grown by Carolina Heritage is Chambourcin, which is a cross between a French wine grape and a native American, so it has the defenses of the native vines but keeps the flavor and aroma of the French grapes, Pat explained.
“All of our grapes are either native or hybrids,” she said, noting the vines at Carolina Heritage include Isabella and Cynthiana, also known as Norton.
And grape growing has been an ongoing learning process, Pat said. The couple planted two acres of Geneva Red, or Rubiana, which “grew beautifully” but with it ripening in July and this area being prone to June bugs that eat ripening fruit, they only had one good crop in 10 years.
So three other varietals have been planted in its place — Cayuga White, Frontenac and Steuben. The Steuben grapes have been planted to make communion wine for the local Catholic church, Pat explained, adding that the church approached the Carolina Heritage because it is an organic farm.
In the years since the couple launched the vineyard, they’ve bought two additional properties, giving them 35 acres, including a ravine that goes from the top of the vineyard at the tasting room and winery, which were built in 2008, down to the spot where the Yadkin and Mitchell rivers meet.
Also, they’ve become an active participant in local efforts to grow the trail systems in and around Elkin and Surry County, with the property eventually to become host to a portion of a trail between Elkin and Pilot Mountain.
The Colwells’ initial plan was to live in the old farmhouse on the vineyard property east of Elkin, and then open a winery and tasting room in downtown Elkin. But Pat realized she’d commuted to work her whole adult life and she didn’t want to commute anymore, so plans changed and they built a house on the property to live in and were going to convert the 1929 farmhouse to a tasting room.
“For a residence the farmhouse was fine, but it wouldn’t work for a commercial building because of the foundation,” Pat said. So the decision was made to build another building for the winery and tasting room, which opened in 2009.
In honor of the history of the property, which was originally designed to be a neighborhood with a street named Birch, the Colwells named one of their wines Birch Blue, using some of their organic blueberries grown on the property to make a blueberry wine.
They also have apple trees they grafted and planted, so they made an apple pie wine this year. The Colwells also grow pears, figs and pomegranates.
The apple pie wine won silver at the Dixie Classic Fair and gold at the N.C. State Fair, and those are just a couple of the awards the Carolina Heritage’s wines have won through the years.
The Colwells’ wine business has grown so much since it began that they’ve also grown their staff from just the two of them, to three employees in the vineyard and two in the tasting room along with eight to 10 other seasonal employees during the harvest season.
“We’ve been fortunate enough to grow the business to provide income for others,” Pat said.
In addition to their own wines, Carolina Heritage’s owners sell the pottery of local artisans, as well as Ashe County cheeses and products from Peeled Poplar Farms in the Shoals community which has an organic garden and produces jellies, salsas and pesto.
In addition to their organic wines and products, Pat said the vineyard hosts local musicians with Birth Station Bluegrass Jams on the third Saturday of each month, which is an open bluegrass and old-time jam, and Celtic jams on the first Saturday of each month led by Candle Firth, musicians from Pilot Mountain.
The vineyard also is part of a consortium of other area wineries as part of Surry Wineries, which began as a tourism grant. The group, which is made up of competing wineries, actually is a support system, where those have become partners. “We know the success of this as a wine region depends on us wall being successful. We send customers to each other, and we grow 40 different grapes in Surry County,” Pat explained.
“I give the county commissioners credit for bringing the wineries together. We’ve formed a community here that’s so supportive,” she said.
“We’re all different and that’s what makes it fun,” Pat said.
Wendy Byerly Wood is editor of On The Vine, The Tribune and The Yadkin Ripple. She may be reached at 336-258-4035 or on Twitter @wendywoodeditor.